Jul 17 2018

A Glitch in the Matrix

The original Matrix movie was brilliant and innovative. It introduced movie elements that we now take for granted, like shifting perspective and “bullet-time”. The story, too, was creative and certainly captured the imagination. In fact, I would argue, the movie has become iconic, in that it represents a more general phenomenon. There is a serious philosophical question about the probability that we are living in a simulated universe. Often “The Matrix” stands in for the concept of any kind of simulated reality.

In the movie (huge spoiler if, for some reason, you have still not seen this movie) most of humanity is living, unbeknownst to them, in a digital simulated world. They are actually floating in pods, plugged in to a vast computer. The fake reality is called the Matrix. One clever plot point is that there are occasional small glitches in the Matrix, usually when those who control the Matrix are introducing new code. This is experience by humans trapped in the Matrix as experiences of deja vu, or errors in perception. In an animated sequel (Animatrix – highly recommended if you are a Matrix fan) glitches were even used to explain apparent paranormal activity. A “haunted” house was simply a computer glitch.

This was an interesting plot point because it reverses the normal line of argument. Some people, unsurprisingly, have taken this seriously, as if it applies to the real world, therefore proving that we are actually living in the Matrix.

Glitch in the brain vs glitch in reality

There is no question that people experience glitches in their stream of perception of external reality. This is a common topic of psychological study, and pretty much the entire field of stage illusion. One very common theme of critical thinking and scientific skepticism is that we seek to carefully explain these apparent glitches as largely neurological phenomena (an approach I call neuropsychological humility).

So, when someone experiences an apparent anomaly, such as seeing a “ghost” or unexplained object, something disappearing, or an amazing coincidence, the principle of neuropsychological humility means that they should consider that the experience was a glitch of brain function, not an accurate reflection of external reality. At the very least, all neurological phenomena need to be adequately ruled out before an external phenomena is seriously entertained.

I have explored here (and review in detail in my upcoming book) all the ways in which normal brain function can produce apparent anomalies. Our stream of experience is an extremely active constructive process. Perceptions are filtered, altered, enhanced, compared, matched to internal patterns, and altered again. Memory is also an active constructive process. Attention, cognitive biases, and expectation all shape our perceptions of reality.

Even things that the brain does well comes at a cost. Our brains are great at finding patterns in data – but that talent means that our brains also tend to see possible patterns in noise.

Further, the brain is not always functioning “normally” (within nominal parameters). We may be sleepy, drunk, highly emotional, or even experience seizures or similar neurological phenomena. But to be clear, even when functioning perfectly, the brain is subject to glitches.

In other words, when we experience something weird, our first assumption should be that the experience is an internal phenomenon, a reflection of a glitchy brain, not an external phenomenon, a reflection of a glitchy reality.

The bottom line is that parsing reality is horrifically complex, and our brains do an incredible job, but they are also an evolved mess. Like all adaptations, they work well enough with the material at hand, but are not perfect, include many trade-offs, and have serious limitations. It is no wonder that our perception of reality is a little fuzzy at the edges.

At the silly end of the spectrum, there are those who argue seriously that we are living in a paranormal world, or at least one with phenomena that appear to defy established physics. Their evidence is usually anomalies (glitches) that are better and more simply explained as neurological phenomena. And now there are those who argue that these apparent glitches are literal evidence for the fact that we are living in a simulated reality – a Matrix.

They are largely the same stories that have been told since people have been telling stories, just used to justify a particular cultural belief. On the Matrix subreddit, for example, there is a story of “missing time.” A passenger on a country road had an apparent blackout and lost a full hour that he cannot account for. What makes the story interesting, is that the two people in the car with him also lost that hour.

This story can be used to support claims for alien abduction, or a government conspiracy, or even demonic possession. In this case it is used as evidence for a glitch in the Matrix.

A far simpler explanation is that they simply fell asleep. All at the same time? Well, they were heading back from a road trip. They were probably all tired. It is likely the two passengers had already fallen asleep at some point. While at a stop on a dark country road, the driver fell asleep also and then woke up an hour later. In some pattern the three occupants then woke each other up and compared notes.

All this doesn’t even sound like much of a coincidence, but let’s say that there was a huge coincidence, such as the driver and the teller of the story waking up independently at about the same time. There may have been a stimulus causing this (and they do report a police car had pulled over another car down the road) but even if not, and it was nothing but a coincidence, so what? That is just another brain glitch – our inability to estimate probability. Extreme coincidence should happen all the time, given the number of opportunities. When they do happen, they become interesting stories, while the millions of more probable events go unreported.

The existence of the paranormal narrative then exerts its own influence, motivating the telling of the story, and not just as a weird coincidence, but as evidence of something. If there is a well-defined paranormal narrative, that will then influence the details of the story. If that same story about the car occupants falling asleep were told on a UFO subreddit, then the details might shift, including anything strange any of the occupants might have seen in the sky at any point during their drive. Or perhaps one of them found a mark on their body later – evidence of alien experimentation.

It is the story-telling nature of humans that turns all of these mundane glitches into alleged evidence of the Matrix, or UFOs, or ESP, or whatever.

I think the most fascinating story is the neuroscientific one – how our brains construct our experience of reality, and how this is revealed through glitches in the gray matter.



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